By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Lori Ovanessian
From the moment Steve Paulson sat in a saddle, he’s had a magical connection with horses and excelled at whatever equestrian discipline he pursued. Polo, reining, three-day eventing, liberty, dressage, Roman riding — Steve’s tried it all and done it all well.
Nicknamed “Six Week Steven” by friends growing up, as he constantly jumped from one adventure to the next, Steve’s decision to trade in his insurance-selling business suits for costumes, horses and the circus life is a testament to his wanderlust. “When I was young, I was always in a new city or trying a new discipline. Once I tried whatever it was, I would check it off and then I was onto the next place or thing,” Steve said.
At 25 years old, Steve ran off to chase his dreams under the big top. Adventurous by nature and an animal lover at heart, Steve jumped at the chance to join the international equestrian performance group Cavalia.
From touring with Cavalia to traveling the world in hopes of learning anything and everything about horses, Steve has already checked a lot of boxes over his nearly three decades of life. Not only has he fed his own need for adventure and horse time through his exploits, but he’s amassed 48,000 followers on Instagram @steves_steeds.
It’s Steve’s knack for finding adventure wherever he travels that has captivated his followers. Always willing to try out something authentic to the area of the world he’s in, he’s had some incredible experiences. “When I was in Australia, we literally caught a brumby (wild horse) living in the bush and completely started him to be a liberty horse in less than three weeks,” Steve said. “In Africa, I was on a horse safari when we got chased by a herd of elephants. As we galloped away, my heart was pounding and I thought now would be a terrible time to fall off.”
Steve added, “I live such a cool lifestyle thanks to the horse. I owe it all to the horses; they’ve given me this whole path to follow and there are so many people all over the world who will welcome you with open arms to share their passion and knowledge.”
Horses may have taken Steve all around the world; however, it’s his hometown of San Diego that brought everything full circle. “When I was 9, I went to see Cavalia with my Grandma. It was the last thing we did together before she died. We had the best time watching the show together,” he said. “To have this connection to the show from so long ago and then have the opportunity to be in it was so magical.”
Igniting the Passion
An accomplished horse trainer and rider today, Steve initially had a different career path in mind. “When I was a kid, I would tell my parents I wanted to be a dog when I grew up,” Steve laughed.
Thankfully, Steve shifted his attention from wanting to be a dog to being obsessed with horses. “In school there was the ‘typical horse girl’ in my class who had a barn jacket she always wore. I wrote down the number of the barn, gave it to my parents and begged to be allowed to go ride one time,” Steve said.
Much to his surprise, that Christmas his parents gifted him a series of riding lessons. “Every Wednesday at 4 p.m. I rode at that little riding school. It was the best thing in the entire world and I quickly wanted more saddle time,” Steve said.
As fate would have it, Steve’s completely non-horsey mother had a friend who played polo and introduced Steve to the sport. No longer was Steve confined to riding round and round in a ring. Rather, he was running around fields and exploring the trails with a gaggle of like-minded kids.
“As a boy I loved horses and animals, but the competitive and sports side of polo was really important too. It gave me the goals to try to win matches and improve my skills,” Steve said.
While working as a groom for Carlos Galindo, Steve rode Carlos’ young horses in exchange for polo lessons. As Steve traveled the country following the polo circuit, his passion for the sport and the animal ignited.
Not only was Steve’s love for horses cemented during this period, but also, polo led him to find his heart horse, Marley. When Steve’s polo playing days were over, he sold his entire string, except Marley. “There was just something special about her. I started jumping her, it was fun and next thing you know we started three-day eventing with Tamie Smith,” Steve said.
Steve hit the ground running, moving from Novice level events to jumping around the CCI2*in two years. Not only did Steve satisfy his need for adventure while with Tamie, he also befriended her assistant Rebecca Ratte, who would be instrumental in his future ventures.
Before devoting all his time to eventing, Steve tried his hand at reining. “I was really intrigued with reining. After being so in control of my horses while playing polo, it was amazing to see them work naturally as they tracked the cows,” he said. “You really set them up and let them work on their own.” This fascination of watching horses excel on their own would come in handy in a few years.
Chance of a Lifetime
At the same time Steve was conquering cross-country courses, he was settling down at his desk job. Much to his parents’ delight, Steve and his sister, Sarah, joined the family’s home and auto insurance agency in 2013.
“We went to school and afterwards both got licensed to sell insurance on the same day. My dad made us knock on doors, wear a suit and offer insurance policies to those who opened the door,” Steve said. “It was a good life. I made good money, wore nice clothes, met a lot of people and did my horses as an amateur.”
While Steve had a great office gig, “Six Week Steven” was itching to explore the world. That’s when the friendship with Rebecca paid off in dividends. “She had joined the cast of Cavalia and was on tour all over Asia and Australia. I would always comment on her social media posts and say, ‘Your life is amazing, if there’s ever an opportunity or they’re hiring, let me know,’” Steve said.
Around the three-year mark of selling insurance, Rebecca came through with the call. “She told me they were coming to California and she had gotten me an audition. It was pretty surreal. I wondered, Can I do this? I had an apartment in San Diego, two dogs and Marley,” Steve said.
Although he may have wondered about the feasibility of uprooting his life, Steve jumped at the opportunity to see if he had what it took to be part of Cavalia.
“I went to the audition and it was weird. Everyone was speaking French and I was lost. But then I saw these amazing Andalusian stallions working at liberty during their rehearsal. I thought, Are they going to just let these horses run loose on the stage and hope for the best?” he said. “After watching the rehearsal, that was the end of the insurance path for me for the time being.”
Like all things, Steve jumped full force into Cavalia and was on board with them three weeks after his audition. In doing so, Steve committed to a two-year contract with the largest touring show in the world, after his parents agreed to keep his two dogs and a friend leased Marley. As part of Cavalia, he would traverse across North America, as the Big Top was erected for two-month runs in cities throughout Canada, Mexico and the United States.
In each performance of Cavalia’s Odysseo, Steve helped get 2,200 audience members to appreciate the magic that exists between horse and human. But Steve had one hiccup to overcome when he joined the cast: Although he had plenty of experience with horses, he had zero performing background. “I wish I had a video of my first show. I was so awkward. With 2,200 eyes on you, at first I would get stuck staring at the audience,” Steve said.
“As a competition rider, I was used to being so focused on my horse and its performance. In Cavalia, I had to entertain the audience at the same time as asking my horse to do things. I had to learn to play to the audience and create my own characters I would tap into on stage,” he said.
Not only a performer on stage, Steve trained the horses of Cavalia when they weren’t under the bright lights. “Cavalia showed me the beauty of liberty training and dressage. I love the art of liberty. Understanding that a horse can do so many things, like actually come when called, lie down, rear up, with no ropes or anything is incredible,” Steve said.
Since finishing his contract with Cavalia in 2018, Steve’s passion for sharing his love of liberty and dressage has only expanded. “Liberty is addicting because it’s so precise. You’re really teaching the horse to bring out their natural instincts. You witness it when two horses are playing at liberty and one will run towards the other and then retreats,” Steve said.
Through liberty training, Steve is able use pressure and release to get the horses to perform different tasks. “It’s essentially a pulley system, where you send them away, let them buck and jump around and then draw them in, so they come running up to you and rear or strike,” Steve said. “Watching how they react to you and their surroundings when they’re on the ground at liberty really gives you a good idea of how their minds operate.”
In the pre-pandemic world, Steve would typically go to 20 countries a year sharing his knowledge of liberty with other horsemen while learning special skills from them.
“The thing that worked best for me was going places and offering to work for free for two weeks. Then if I loved it and they enjoyed me and the work I did, hopefully they would offer me a job,” he said. “I did this three times with great success working with three of my favorite trainers I really look up to: Luis Valença in Portugal, Alizèe Formont in the Czech Republic and Ben Atkinson in England.”
Being able to study dressage with Luis Valença, one of the last masters of classical dressage, was a dream come true for Steve. “The family is so revered. It was an amazing experience to learn from them and attend the Golega Horse Fair with Luis,” Steve said.
After studying classical dressage with Luis, Steve traveled to Munich, Germany, to hit the stage once again in the equestrian performing arts show Equila.
From Equila, Steve traveled to work with his number one idol, Alizèe Formont, who was based in a castle in the mountains about 45 minutes from Prague. “I sent her a message with a video of what I do and said I would love to meet you and spend a weekend there,” Steve said. “She agreed and I joined her team. It was amazing to see her end result as she does dressage in a neck rope and incorporates a lot of liberty.”
The most influential relationship Steve developed with his free-work-trial philosophy was with Ben Atkinson. “He became a best friend. Ben taught me what it takes to prepare a horse for film, television and live performances. He’s really talented in desensitizing horses in different ways,” Steve said. “We did everything from teaching horses to rear to jumping one horse over the other.”
Since his time with Ben, Steve has worked behind the scenes for movies and fashion photo shoots. One of the more memorable projects Steve has worked on was the Gucci 2020 spring campaign, where he had five horses on set.
“It’s really fun when a producer comes to me and says, ‘I need this horse to cross its legs, a model to lay down and have a horse put its head in her lap,’ or, ‘You need to desensitize a horse for a celebrity to ride,’” Steve said. “For the Gucci campaign, I helped with an ad where a mini horse was riding in a convertible down the road. Each project makes me so excited!”
COVID-19 has put a damper on Steve’s travels for the time being; however, it hasn’t dulled his drive to impart his knowledge on horses at home. During this COVID downtime, Steve has been repurposing horses that no longer thrive in their discipline, helped horses from Cavalia find their forever homes as the production shuttered because of the pandemic, and imparted a little liberty to a few competition horses along the way.
“What I’ve been doing lately is using liberty training to reignite the fire in competition horses that have lost their spark. By pulling out their personality in liberty, when they reenter the show ring they still have that spark liberty put in them,” Steve said.
Steve is anxiously awaiting the world to reopen so he can resume his global equestrian education and adventures. In the meantime, he’s plotting his future. “My friends today have renamed me, changing my goal to be ‘Six Figure Steven,’” he said.
“I used to have a goal that at 30, I would know what I wanted to do. Now that I’m 29, I don’t think anyone knows what they want to do by 30, so I’ve pushed it to 40,” Steve said. “While my body is young, I want to keep at this path. I’d love to do both Grand Prix dressage and show jumping, maybe even on the same horse. I want to have a home base where I can do movie and photo-shoot training, continue my path with liberty and I’m excited to take on more consignment and sales horses.”
Eventually, Steve will make his way back to suits and insurance; until then he’s going to live life to the fullest and share it with his Instagram followers along the way. We’re all going to enjoy the ride.
For more information, follow Steve on Instagram, @steves_steeds
Photos by Lori Ovanessian, simpleefocused.com